We did it in 1916 and in 1965, and come 2011, Manitoba will once again add two years to the mandatory age for young people to be in school.
By next school year, young Manitobans will likely be compelled to stay in school until 18 unless they graduate from high school at a younger age,
Education Minister Nancy Allan made the surprise announcement Thursday morning that the legislation will be tabled soon, likely passed in the spring and in place as early as the fall.
It was 1916 that the age of school attendance jumped to 14 from 12, and in 1965 then-premier Duff Roblin increased compulsory school attendance to age 16 from 14.
Now the province is adding two more years, planning to join Ontario and New Brunswick as the only provinces with compulsory school attendance for those beyond 16 years old.
"Education and training are the core of our vision," Allan said. "It's our responsibility to educate our children. It is the equalizer in our society.
"It just makes sense to me."
Increasing the province's high school graduation rate is the goal. Young people who might otherwise drop out will likely spend their 17th and 18th years in a variety of programs outside the traditional classroom, Allan said.
However, any student who graduates from high school at a younger age than 18 would not be compelled to continue their education.
Allan said the government has been considering the move for several months. She said while the ideal is that Manitoba's high school graduation rate will increase to 100 per cent from 80.9 per cent, "we recognize the traditional classroom does not work well for everyone."
Students would be expected to complete high school, she said, but they could do so through off-campus training, apprenticeship, technical-vocational schools, adult learning centres and other programs that would ultimately lead them to post-secondary education and/or a career.
"There was a time when receiving a high school diploma was considered the end of a young person's education. Those days are gone.
"This is the new normal, a reflection of the new reality. There are no dead ends in education," Allan said.
The minister said she will consult widely on details of the measure during the next few months.
Asked if the NDP would have money to boost the range of program options available to students who would otherwise drop out at 16, Allan chortled: "Well, hey, we're going through the budget process. You just never know."
She said Manitoba would not provide direct financial support to students 16 to 18 years old to keep them in school. She said she did not expect high schools would have space issues or need additional teachers if thousands of students are forced to stay in school for two additional years, because many of those students would study outside traditional classrooms.
But wherever those young people go for their education, they must have teachers, said Manitoba Teachers' Society president Pat Isaak.
"Alternate programs have to have teachers. How will it be funded? How will it be staffed?" Isaak wondered. "There will be some infrastructure questions: Do we have space? How many students are we talking about?"
Anything that keeps students in school increases their chance of succeeding, Isaak said.
"Teachers know that the longer you keep students in school, you can expose them to more opportunities. Not every student is going to succeed in the same kind of program," she said.
Tory Leader Hugh McFadyen scoffed at the announcement, saying there is "zero chance" the NDP will introduce any changes before the next provincial election next October.
"We want kids to finish school, but the NDP cobbled this together out of desperation, with no consultation with the people who'll implement it," McFadyen said.
Truancy leads to dropping out, and this is a complex issue that needs far more than just increasing the age of leaving school, McFadyen said. "It's meaningless unless you've got a system for tracking people at every stage. There's no due diligence.
"The government is desperately pushing out announcements all over the place -- an election is coming," McFadyen said.
Allan said penalties levied on parents if their children drop out before 18 will be part of the consultation. The current penalty for children dropping out before 16 is $500, but it's rarely applied, she said.
"We're going to have a look at those penalties," Allan said, though she emphasized the priority is the academic success of young people, not punishment.
WHAT DOES THE GOVERNMENT INTEND TO DO?
Introduce legislation soon to raise the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18 unless students graduate from high school at a younger age. Details are to be worked out through consultations over the next few months.
WHAT WILL IT COST?
Unknown. There will be no direct government financial support for young people between 16 and 18 years old, but the next provincial budget could contain money for new or expanded training programs, technical-vocational schools, adult learning centres and apprenticeships. There could be costs for facilities and more teachers.
WHAT IF A STUDENT OVER 16 REFUSES?
There will be an undetermined fine levied on the student's parents.
High school graduation rates are going up in northwestern Ontario, where it's been compulsory since 2007 to stay in school until age 18.
"We created alternate education programs and called them connections. We're not dragging kids back into school -- they connect back into school," Keewatin-Patricia director of education Jack McMaster said from Dryden.
McMaster acknowledged that some kids ages 16 to 18 are not going to school and some walk away when they turn 18. But there are more young people studying and finishing school who would otherwise be on the streets at 16.
"We've incorporated some other methods of alternate learning for students who are struggling. We've expanded our alternate education programs."
There are satellite high school campuses in native friendship centres in Kenora, Dryden and other communities, McMaster said. Attendance counsellors work with families and the schools call on students who have stayed in school to help persuade their friends to do the same.
Getting potential dropouts on to computers has worked well, he said. Co-op programs that put students into workplaces and into paid jobs in the summer that link into vocational courses have been successful.
Ontario law calls for $1,000 fines for parents whose kids don't go to school, but McMaster has never seen anyone fined. There was talk in Ontario of denying a driver's licence to anyone under 18 leaving school before graduating, McMaster said, but, "that fell through."